Film review – Gangster Squad (2013)

13 January 2013
Gangster Squad: Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) and Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling)

Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) and Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling)

Director Ruben Fleischer is behind at least two films that gently parody while simultaneously pay tribute to popular genres. His 2009 film Zombieland is a conventionally self-aware film. It utilised a genre that audiences are accustomed to seeing endearingly made fun of while remaining respectful. The tone of the film was light, signalling to the audience that it was not to be taken too seriously. Fleischer’s gangster film Gangster Squad is an unconventionally self-aware film, which like the 2012 faux-historical film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmambetov) does not utilise generic conventions that audiences are used to seeing explicitly parodied. Most radical of all, Gangster Squad plays it completely deadpan. Not that it could be mistaken for anything other than a hyperactive exaggeration of every single trope and archetype from the gangster genre, but it never overtly winks at the audience. For casual viewers it may seem to be playing it absurdly straight, when it is doing completely the opposite and with audacious relish.

Set in Los Angeles in 1949 Gangster Squad embraces the pulpy crime films and hardboiled fiction of the era. Post World War II disillusionment met early paranoia about the dawning nuclear era, and the cultural landscape was grim and bitter. Film noir was always a cynical and dark (thematically and literally) genre, but 1949 saw the end of the first wave of classic noir films being replaced by the far rawer and more violent wave of B-grade noirs by the likes of directors such as Joseph H Lewis, Robert Aldrich and Samuel Fuller. Not only does Gangster Squad pay cartoonish tribute to these films in style and content, but it also tips its fedora at classic films from the era, such as Billy Wilder’s non-B-grade masterpiece Sunset Blvd. (1950), with direct visual references. Furthermore, Gangster Squad is aware of the legacy of crime, gangster and action films to have come since so there are also moments that seem to be direct references to films such as Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971), Scarface (Brian De Palma, 1983) The Untouchables (Brian De Palma, 1987) and Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987).

The film is a gangster version of Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967), with a group of city cops forming an unclassified squad to obliterate a powerful crime syndicate ruled by Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). Cohen is more like an ultra-violent version of one of the super villains from Dick Tracey (Warren Beatty, 1990) than the historical figure he is based on. The head of the squad is Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), who is similarly more like an indestructible super hero. As the married and noble ex-army man who wants to clean up the city he loves, O’Mara possesses many of the characteristics of the more reputable type of crime film hero. Unusually Gangster Squad has two heroic masculine protagonists, with the other being the far more conventional down-and-out cop Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) who is initially completely disillusioned and far too susceptible to temptation, which includes falling for Cohen’s girlfriend, femme fatale Grace Faraday (Emma Stone).

It is a shame that the second half of Gangster Squad does not consistently deliver the same over-the-top-comic-book style of the first half. Nevertheless, it is a fun ride that signposts right from the beginning that it is working on a very stylised level in a similar yet far less apparent way to Sin City (Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez, 2005). There is nothing clever about predicting what is going to happen in Gangster Squad because the film is so determined to fulfil every classic narrative development associated with the genre. And still there are elements of the story that do surprise. A lot of the humour in the film comes from scenarios that occur due to the squad being anything but a slick and effective operation. Lovingly pulpy yet honest and sincere about its intent, there is plenty in Gangster Squad for fans of the gangster genre to enjoy.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Men in Black 3 (2012)

21 May 2012
Men in Black 3: Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Josh Brolin)

Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Josh Brolin)

Filmmaker Barry Sonnenfeld returns to the Men in Black films ten years after the second part and fifteen years after the original. As there hasn’t been any real sense of demand for this franchise to be continued, it does feel like an odd move. Then again, Sonnenfeld has had an odd career beginning notably as a cinematographer for Joel and Ethan Coen (not to be confused with Men in Black 3 co-writer Etan Coen) and then frequently emulating other directors. His Addams Family films (1991 and 1993) feel a little like Tim Burton works, Get Shorty (1995) seems in Quentin Tarantino mode and the Men in Black films are a bit like something Joe Dante might do. Ironically the film where a ‘Sonnenfeldesque’ visual style most shines through is Wild Wild West (1999), an attempt at Western era steampunk that is a complete mess.

Men in Black 3 returns to the fictional world from Lowell Cunningham’s comic book series, where secret agents monitor and cover-up alien activity on Earth. This instalment introduces a time travel plot, where Agent J (Will Smith) travels back to 1969 to stop an alien from assassinating his partner Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones in 2012 and Josh Brolin in 1969). The very casual changing-the-future-by-changing-the-past narrative evokes Back to the Future (1985); this time suggesting Robert Zemeckis is the director whom Sonnenfeld is taking his cues from. And sadly, like many of Sonnenfeld’s films, it doesn’t hold up to its influences. While flawed logic can be found in Back to the Future and other time travel film narratives, they still possess a suspension of disbelief and internal logic that suits the context of the film. The very confused idea of what aspects of time travel affects what recalls the convoluted Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (Jay Roach, 1999), but without the knowing winks to the audience. There is even one moment in Men in Black 3 when the time travel device is used to reset a moment, which completely breaks the logic of the film.

Nevertheless, there is still a lot to like and aspects of the time travel narrative do work well. A character who exists in the 5th dimension and therefore can simultaneously see multiple realities and timelines is used both comically and in moments of poignancy. The previously unresolved explanation of why K recruited J in the first place is also finally explained, providing the film with an unexpected note of sentimentality that works surprisingly well even if it is overly foreshadowed. That moment plus the chance to have Josh Brolin play a younger version of Tommy Lee Jones provide the best justification for why this sequel was made. On the other hand, the promise of using the idea to send an elite African American agent back to 1969 to comment on the history of America’s civil rights movement is not fulfilled apart from one middling early scene where Agent J encounters a pair of racist cops. Missed opportunities to provide any real substance in this film are frustrating.

Otherwise, Men in Black 3 is a series of okay gags and okay action sequences, with enough elements to make it moderately enjoyable. Completely against type, Jemaine Clement is a lot of fun as the villainous Boris the Animal and Michael Stuhlbarg is great as Griffin, the creature who lives in the 5th dimension. Emma Thompson as Agent O is mostly underused, although she does get one fun moment where she maintains a completely straight face while speaking in an absurd alien language. All the elements are there for this to be a great science-fiction/comedy, but it never truly engages. Annoyingly it continues the gag that all slightly unusual or creative people are actually aliens, which hints at an underlying conservatism. Perhaps if the film celebrated difference and strangeness more, rather than always presenting it as something to laugh at or arrest, then Men in Black 3 could live up to the potential that Sonnenfeld has always showed, but never quite delivered.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – W. (2008)

25 February 2009
George W. Bush (Josh Brolin)

George W. Bush (Josh Brolin)

W. is the third film that director Oliver Stone has based around the USA presidency (JFK and Nixon are his previous efforts). It is also a curiously restrained film considering Stone’s past tendency to make controversial films containing an excessive use of film style, Natural Born Killers and Platoon being two notable examples. Despite the occasional use of heavily ironic music, W. is not the all out ridiculing attack on Bush that many people may assume it to be. Looking at the range and depth of source material that the film was based upon, it appears to be an incredibly well researched film. It examines Bush as a rebellious young man who despite his highly privileged background couldn’t hold down a job until the age of 40 when he turned his life around to eventually become the president of the free world. While W. does heavily focus on the era between October 2001 and March 2003 when America went to war with Iraq, Stone’s primary interest lies in the complex relationship that Bush had with his father.

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